1911 Trouble Shooting Made Simple

There always seems to be a great deal of anguished hand-wringing when a pistol stops working properly. It’s not a problem anyone looks forward to, but in most cases we can solve the problem quickly with a minimum of time, effort and expense. It’s important to separate the issues of a pistol which suddenly or gradually stopped functioning properly from those of a pistol having problems from the get-go. With a properly functioning pistol you at least have an established base line to return to. Since there isn’t enough space in this issue of the magazine to list all the fixes for all the maladies possible, let’s concentrate on a thought process making the troubleshooting process a little easier.

Not the first, but possibly the most important thing I learned about troubleshooting is you cannot diagnose a problem with a filthy-dirty, gunked-up gun. The problem could be caused or aggravated by the sludge, residue and grit accumulating in and on the gun. Thoroughly clean it first — then test. If you still have an issue, at least you’ve ruled out filth as the culprit.

In another phase of my career, we were frequently presented with multiple guns exhibiting a wide range of problems for shooters of differing experience levels and physical characteristics. They had all come to school to press their weapons hard in a learning environment, and our only requirement was to keep down-time to an absolute minimum. The system we devised, while perhaps not the most expedient, was thorough, repeatable and reliable. It worked on a wide variety of guns having to be put back into service quickly.


Here, the ejector leg is sheared off and the “V” joint of an ambi-safety
is broken off. Any of these breaks could put a 1911 out of action instantly.

Hard Parts

The first course of action after cleaning and testing is to detail strip and examine each part of the pistol. If the gun was working properly and now isn’t, the question is “What’s changed?” It sounds a little corny, but it helps greatly to divide the pistol’s components into two groups. I refer to them as the hard and soft parts. A hard part is anything comprising a component of the pistol not generally susceptible to short term wear, but may be affected by sudden damage or failure. Using the 1911 as an example, hard parts would include the frame and slide, safety, slide stop, barrel and bushing, firing pin and stop, magazine catch, recoil spring guide and plug, ejector, hammer, strut, sear, disconnector, mainspring housing and grip safety.

Why check these parts first? To rule out the failure of any major component, we look for signs of damage like a cracked or broken safety, barrel bushing, or a broken slide stop or an ejector with a broken leg. To simplify, these are parts having a fixed orientation with the other “hard” parts. To either rule out or address problems here first makes the process simpler if it’s necessary to continue the troubleshooting process.


Same poundage, but the shorter one is “worn” and
should definitely be replaced.

The Softies

You’ve probably figured out by now what the “soft” parts are, and you’d be mostly correct. The ones most people overlook are sometimes the most important — ammunition and magazines. Why are these considered “soft” parts? In the case of ammunition, inconsistency and cleanliness often cause problems. Magazines are also prone to infrequent cleaning, “relaxed” feed lips, tired springs and worn followers. Often the best fix for an old magazine is a new magazine.

The more obvious of the soft parts are of course the springs, but in the case of the 1911, the extractor qualifies as well. A properly fit and adjusted extractor can last a long time, but since it’s tasked with maintaining consistent tension against a cartridge case during a rather violent process, it has a tendency to change from time to time, requiring periodic attention. The same is true of the other gunsprings in the system. While a mainspring lasts almost indefinitely, a conventional recoil spring is not nearly as durable and should be replaced at appropriate intervals.

It’s a good idea to have a few spares on hand, but not only for the sake of a field replacement. A properly tuned spare extractor gives a visual and tactile reference of what your optimal extractor tension should be, and allows you to re-adjust a malfunctioning extractor to match. Spare recoil springs are a must. A simple visual comparison will often tell you when you’ve lost optimal effective length, even if the measurement of actual return force is difficult to quantify. Changing the recoil spring at conservative intervals is also cheap insurance. It’s not only a good way to keep the pistol cycling consistently, it helps protect the frame from battering as the slide cycles.

A final thought too. Any student of the gun should have all the information possible to help diagnose and repair his equipment. Brownell’s stocks the excellent Kuhnhausen manuals, as well as many other reference materials. As smart as we sometimes think we are, seeing the solution in print is often the only way to solve the problem.
By Ted Yost

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